One of the most fascinating supernatural legends is that of the corpse candle. Originating in Wales in the 18th and 19th centuries, corpse candles are an omen of death, maintained over centuries of folklore. Otherwise known as the Canwyll Corph/Canwyllau Cryff, corpse candles are neither made from corpses, or corpse wax* (which is a real, but unrelated thing), but are harbingers of death. Being a light that predicts the death of an individual, they are variations on the traditions of ‘spooklights’ and ‘earthlights’, being occasional, mythical or supernatural emissions of light.
With corpse candles, size is everything. The size of the candle represents the age of the person about to die; if the candle is short, they are young, if the candle is long, they are old. It’s a simple and effective system. If two candles appear together, with one shorter than the other, the deaths will be those of a mother and child. If the candle flame is red, the deceased will be a man. If the flame is white, it will be a woman.
Corpse candles were also mobile. They relate to corpse roads, which were in use for hundreds of years and are similarly self-explanatory, referring to the old roads used for taking bodies to the church or burial ground. In many instances, corpse candles were reported as small lights that lingered on these roads at night, signalling either souls that had already passed through the roads, or those about to travel down them.
One Welsh woman’s story, reported in British Goblins by Wirt Sikes (1880) reads as follows:
One night her sister was lying very ill at the [Welsh woman’s] house, and [the sister] was alone with her children, her husband being in the lunatic asylum at Cardiff. She had just put the children to bed and had set the candle on the floor preparatory to going to bed herself when there came a ‘swish’ along the floor like the rustling of graves clothes [shrouds], and the candle was blown out. The room, however, to her surprise remained glowing with a feeble light as from a very small taper, and looking behind her she beheld ‘old John Richards’ who had been dead ten years. He held a corpse candle in his hand and he looked at her in a chill and steadfast manner which caused blood to run cold in her veins. She turned and woke her eldest boy, and said to him, “Don’t you see old John Richards?” The boy asked “Where?”, rubbing his eyes. She pointed out the ghost, and the boy was so frightened at the sight of it that he cried out, “Oh, wi! Oh, dduw! I wish I may die!” The ghost then disappeared, the Corpse Candle in its hand; the candle on the floor burned again with a clear light and the next day the sick sister died.
Another story from a man named Thomas Matthews includes the image of a corpse candle burning from inside his own father’s mouth, stretching to his feet, before retracting and disappearing back into his mouth, shortly before the man died.
In a 1979 interview –preserved by the National Museum of Wales – a man from Ysbyty Ystwyth recounts his grandfather’s experiences with corpse candles.
He’d had many experiences of the corpse candle. My grandmother died when my mother was eight years old, my Uncle David six and Aunty Charlotte a baby, a young girl, twenty-eight years old. She died of the dicâd[tuberculosis], as they called it in those days, [and] there was no cure. And the night before she died he was by her bedside, and he saw a little lighted candle on the bed, and he saw it going out of the house. And then his wife died. And he saw his wife’s corpse candle going out of the house. And she saw it too. She said:
‘Do you see that light going out through the door, Tomos?’ Both she and he saw the light, and she died the next day.
In a report from London, hospital staff reported seeing a blue flame emanate from inside a man’s mouth shortly before death, although critics of the story believe this to have been ignited hydrogen, resulting from the decomposition of the man’s body.
As such, corpse candles weren’t necessarily candle-shaped; they could appear as balls of light and even be accompanied by a human skull, just to hammer home the death aspect of the supernatural candle.
In other stories, a cluster of corpse candles seen in mid-air signalled a death in a nearby house…or that the person witnessing them was going to die. Either way, you’re not in for a great night.
Corpse candles did not only signal the death of an individual, but traced the path their body would take. These deathly candles could travel ‘over mountains, valleys, even rivers and marsh land, never bothering with traditional routes and seeming to be able to travel wherever they wished.’
One such travelling candle story comes from Maurice Griffiths, a baptist preacher and former schoolmaster of Pontfaen in Pembrokeshire. Griffiths saw a red light in the valley below as he walked by at night. He saw the red light travel, before stopping motionless for fifteen minutes, before continuing its journey to the church and churchyard of Llanferch-Llawddog Church. Days later, the young son of a man named Peter Higgon of Pontfaen died and the child’s funeral procession took the same route as the corpse light. As with the flame, the funeral procession had to wait for fifteen minutes at a body of water while they received help to move the coffin over. The child was eventually buried in the same spot at which the corpse candle had lingered before disappearing.
Very few collectors of folk tales tried to rationalise or explain the roots of the corpse candle, however, in an account from 1848, the writer states that corpse candles:
seem to be of electrical origin, when the ears of the traveller’s horse, the extremity of his whip, his spurs or any other projecting points appear tipped with pencils of light… the toes of the rider’s boots, and even the tufts of hair at the fetlocks of his horse, appeared to burn with a steady blue light, and on the hand being extended, every finger immediately became tipped with fire.
Sussex folklorist Charlotte Latham hypothesised that accounts of corpse candles could be misinterpretations of glow-worms, which is rather less exciting.
Corpse candles make up just one small part of Welsh death folklore and were often seen as a component of ghost or phantom funerals, where spectral funeral processions made their way down corpse roads, accompanied by the sound of weeping mourners.
With industrialisation came the decline of folk beliefs and superstitions, but the terrifying ominous image of a corpse candle has never truly died.
* Corpse wax, otherwise known as adipocere is a waxy substance that builds up from the anaerobic bacterial hydrolysis of fat in body tissue. Lovely, I know.
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Further Reading/Fun Stuff:
https://museum.wales/collections/folktales/?story=15– A Man from Ysbyty Ystwyth sees a Corpse Candle. This series of interviews between Mary Thomas and her husband William are fascinating and well worth a read – or a listen if you speak Welsh.
Via Spencer, John and Jane. The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits. BCA. 1992.